Accepting Doubt as a Companion, if not a Friend - Reservoir Church
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The Wild Places

Accepting Doubt as a Companion, if not a Friend

Steve Watson

Mar 31, 2019

So we’re half way through our celebration of Lent this year. Lent is again the 40 days before Easter in which churches have traditionally devoted time and energy to the forming of our inner lives and our connection and devotion to Jesus. This has included breaking rhythm and letting go in different ways – fasting from food or practicing more generosity. And it’s included different types of spiritual formation experiences. For your personal use, we’ve got a guide you can use five days a week – those are out on a table in the dome behind you and online. And then together we can look forward to next Sunday as we skip the sermon and share what one of our participatory liturgies – music and storytelling with the chance to react and interact as we sit in small groups with others. I hope you’ll join us next week for that.

Today, though, as part of this year’s Wild Places theme, I want to talk about doubt. We’ll have 3 different Petes speak to us – kind of a fun coincidence there – but we’ll start with one of the Bible’s ancient poems of prayer in the Psalms. Let me read the start of Psalm 77 for us.

Psalm 77 (CEB)

I cry out loud to God—

   out loud to God so that he can hear me!

2 During the day when I’m in trouble I look for my Lord.

   At night my hands are still outstretched and don’t grow numb;

       my whole being refuses to be comforted.

3 I remember God and I moan.

   I complain, and my spirit grows tired. Selah

4 You’ve kept my eyelids from closing.

   I’m so upset I can’t even speak.

5 I think about days long past;

   I remember years that seem an eternity in the past.

6 I meditate with my heart at night;

   I complain, and my spirit keeps searching:

7 “Will my Lord reject me forever?

   Will he never be pleased again?

8 Has his faithful love come to a complete end?

   Is his promise over for future generations?

9 Has God forgotten how to be gracious?

   Has he angrily stopped up his compassion?” Selah

It’s interesting to experience doubt as a pastor. Teddy Hickman-Maynard talked about this last week, as he shared how troubling it was to be raised in a religious home, so full of confident faith, only to have that unravel on him as a young adult. He described his torment as he threw his Bible across the room in frustration, full of doubt, even as he continued to try to fake it as a preacher and a pastor – to teach and preach what he no longer believed.

I read a survey once that talked about the experiences pastors have on Sundays, and how many of us feel we have to fake it before the church. It was a lot of us.

Now for reasons I think I’ll get to, this has not been my experience as your pastor. But I can see how it happens. Life is long, we all suffer, but some pastors get the vibe that churches want a leader whose life is untroubled and victorious, blessed by God, they might say. If that’s the case, the pastor fakes it through personal pain and trouble. And then even more pastors feel their churches want a teacher and a spiritual model who is without error or doubt, who has certain confidence in all God’s truth and goodness. That’s a high bar, and if you think that’s what is expected of you in your job, or in your identity, than of course you’re going to need to fake it.

Because we all doubt.

I’ve had all kinds of doubts. I won’t catalog them all for you, but I have noticed they are stirred up unpredictably. I’ve faced the death of some very dear people in my life and had deep confidence in God’s care for their spirit, and in their coming life in the age to come. But there have been times when someone not close to me has died, and I won’t be able to shake the question of whether death might not be the end of everything for us.

Grace and I have had horrible fears about our children and have been sure that God is with us in our parenting and that God is good and sweet to our kids in every way. And then we’ve seen a child face a relatively more minor point of suffering and have wondered if God is really good and present at all.

We don’t always know why or when we doubt, but we do.

It’s normal to have doubts about who and what we hope God to be, or to have doubts about things we have believed or hoped to be true. We feel, we think, we learn, our brains are meant to be active and to wonder. And so they doubt.

And if we ever wondered whether this was or wasn’t OK with God, well we see it right in the pages of scripture, like in the opening to this psalm, where the writer is just airing it out.

God doesn’t listen to me. God doesn’t love me. Even thinking about who or what this silent, absent God must be simply exhausts me. That faith that God would be good, compassionate, promise-keeping – maybe that is a faith of my past.

This person is airing it out, saying it to God, and then writing it down, passing on to others to copy, writing music for these words, saying them repeatedly amongst others. So much attention to these doubts that they make it into the Bible’s book of great prayers.

There’s even the untranslated word selah at the end of some of the lines. The Bible, and church traditions, have kept a few untranslated Hebrew words around. There’s Hallelujah – which means: you, praise God. There’s Amen – which means something like “so be it” or “yes.” And then there’s this lesser known selah, which – well, we don’t really know what it means, but it’s a pause, and there’s a good chance that it’s a cue to musicians for some kind of interlude. Which I like here, because it’s like the psalmist gets to doubt and moan and then stop for a while to play some sad, sad songs, just like we would.

Sad songs for sad times, prayers of doubt for the doubting mind; doubt doesn’t need to hidden or tucked away as if it’s something to be ashamed or afraid of. Doubt needs light, it needs to be seen and expressed.

The only reason we’d think otherwise is if we practiced a fear-based faith, as if doubt made God angry or something. The most common fear-based faith in most religion is a form of fundamentalism, which just means – a professor of mine once taught – that you have no room for doubt or error. That’s fundamentalism in any faith, to have no room for doubt or error. To need to always be right and certain.

Which isn’t faith or anything else helpful, it’s actually a sin.

Here’s where the first Pete comes in. A Bible scholar whose work I appreciate is named Pete Enns, and one of his books is called The Sin of Certainty. And he says a lot of things in that book, but one thing is that to need to always have certain confidence in our beliefs about God is not to trust God more but less. Life’s hard and confusing. We learn new things and have so many new experiences, that of course we’re going to change our minds about some things we thought we knew and we’re going to doubt other things we hope are true.

To never change our mind, to need to be certain about all truth isn’t faith – it’s fear of error or doubt. To never change our mind, to need to be certain that everything we were taught about God or about life is true, is to box God into a form that one person or tradition once taught us, as if we could ever confidently know everything there is to know about something or someone as big as God.

Actual faith isn’t confidence about God, it’s trust in God, trust with God, even in the midst of all our doubt and error. To trust God, to have faith, is to know, sure, we can’t have total certainty about anything we think. Sure, we’ll be wrong about some things and doubt others, and yet we can continue to hope and trust that God is present and good, beyond and within all that we don’t know for sure.

Faith isn’t the opposite of doubt; faith includes doubt.

So I start today’s talk saying that doubt is OK, and doubt needs light, not fear.

Secondly, doubt calls for memory. Let me finish reading the psalm, as the writer starts to remember some things.

10 It’s my misfortune, I thought,

   that the strong hand of the Most High is different now.

11 But I will remember the Lord’s deeds;

   yes, I will remember your wondrous acts from times long past.

12 I will meditate on all your works;

   I will ponder your deeds.

13 God, your way is holiness!

   Who is as great a god as you, God?

14 You are the God who works wonders;

   you have demonstrated your strength among all peoples.

15 With your mighty arm you redeemed your people;

   redeemed the children of Jacob and Joseph. Selah

16 The waters saw you, God—

   the waters saw you and reeled!

       Even the deep depths shook!

17 The clouds poured water,

   the skies cracked thunder;

       your arrows were flying all around!

18 The crash of your thunder was in the swirling storm;

   lightning lit up the whole world;

       the earth shook and quaked.

19 Your way went straight through the sea;

   your pathways went right through the mighty waters.

       But your footprints left no trace!

20 You led your people like sheep

   under the care of Moses and Aaron.

The wild places of doubt and trouble call for sad songs, but they also call for old songs. Our doubts need light, but they also remind us we need roots, we need memory.

When the psalmist is going through the hardest season of life, and is full of doubt about everything, that seems a great time to remember the oldest and best story of God that they know. For the psalmist, this is the story of the exodus – the founding rescue story of Israel, retold here in poetry.

Remember that time when God helped our ancestors? Remember that time when the seas fled from our feet, when the waters pulled back at God’s voice? Remember that time when the impossible was made possible, when God helped us, when God freed us, when the skies lit up in wonder? Remember?

What anchors us, what keeps us rooted, when we doubt?

I used to think psalms like this were magical thinking, remembering the greatest God-story we’ve ever heard from the past and imagining that exact thing would surely happen again tomorrow.

The thing is, the psalmist knows that isn’t true. The psalmist thinks about how God’s ways seem different today than they were yesterday, and in one sense that is true. The miracle of the exodus happened just once, and for the psalmist it was hundreds of years in the distant past. By the time this psalm was published, if not written, Israel was scattered again, its kings deposed, its temple destroyed, its dreams deferred. Even when they gathered again in Jerusalem, when they re-achieved a form of freedom and flourishing, Israel’s temple and collective hopes would again be destroyed by the Roman empire.

God was not showing up for them with another exodus every day, not even every century.

And yet, this was still their story, and this was still their God. No one could take that away from them. I love that this psalm – in the middle of this memory – says God is holy. It reminds us that God’s holiness isn’t primarily about abstract moral perfection, it’s about loving faithfulness. What makes God different, what makes God perfect, isn’t abstract at all, it’s that God is ever-present, never-stopping love.

The exodus was one story of that love – who knows what form it will take next?

What God-stories anchors us? What stories of God keep us rooted when we doubt?

We’ve learned that it’s really important for kids to know where they come from. It’s a powerful thing for parents to tell our kids their origin stories. This is what it was like on the day you were born. Here’s what you were like as a baby. These are the stories of your birth, the stories of your childhood, the stories of your roots. Let me tell you, child, where you came from.

Kids are anchored and grounded by these stories. They remind them they are known and loved and matter. They keep them grounded when so much about their identity and future is unknown and insecure.

We all need old stories, stories of roots, stories from the Bible, stories from history, stories from our own lives that remind us that God is present and good to us all, even when that’s hard to see.

Most of us doubt more when we learn new things that threaten our old understandings of God and truth, or when we experience new things that threaten our view of how we’ve thought God and life work.

And given that we live in times when we are learning and experiencing so much that is new, that means we’re going to doubt more than our ancestors did. Let me tell you a story about this for me, and about how light and memory helped.

I’d been taught in my early years of Christian spiritual formation that part of the benefit of faith in Jesus was a present-day relationship with God, with the Spirit and teaching of Jesus present to comfort and guide. And I’d been taught that part of the benefit too was an assurance of life forever with God beyond the grave. I still think this, I still hope this. But I’d also been taught that the only reason I could have assurance of this was that I’d confessed with mouth, as I believed in my heart, that Jesus was in charge of my life, and that Jesus was the one true path to God. And I’d said that publicly in my baptism as well.

Well, like many of you, I’ve come to know over the years some delightful human beings – deep and good and surely loved by God – who knew nothing about Jesus or, for various reasons, didn’t think they wanted anything to do with Jesus, or at least with Christian faith. Sometimes they’ve had pretty good reasons for that too. I’ve seen a few of these delightful human beings die, and thought – surely God wouldn’t love and preserve me, and consign them to the eternal trash can, just because my exposure to Jesus was more thorough or positive than theirs. That didn’t make sense to me.

And then, when I visited Delhi, India for the first time, I’d never been a city that large or that crowded. Tens of millions of people, and sometimes it seemed like they were all in the same traffic jam. I remember looking at this sea of people, this massive crush of humanity, and asking: do these people matter to God? Could God not be with them in some form? What eternal destiny is theirs? And the simple faith assertions I’d been taught before just wouldn’t hold.

The billions of people that had never heard of Jesus, the billions that never said or thought these God-approved statements about Jesus…. it had been implied in my faith that they had no access to God in this life and no hope, or at least no assurance, for life beyond the grave.

Now here I am in Delhi, looking at all these people, and to doubt that aspect of my faith seemed like the only reasonable and loving thing to do.
All these people? Just because they lost a genetic lottery and weren’t born into families or communities that were into Jesus – they get no God, and just some kind of annihilation or hell after death? No chance at the life I got a chance at? That seemed random and unfair, it seemed unworthy of the big and kind God I’d come to love. So I doubted the beliefs I’d been taught. My mind was troubled.

Memory here served me, though. Because I remembered that even Christians haven’t always thought this way about God and the afterlife. I remembered children’s books I’d heard about when I was young, that I’d read in full in my early years of young adult faith, The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis.  I remembered a scene toward the end of the last book, when a good and valiant man from a far away country dies in battle and confronts Aslan, the story’s Jesus figure, after his death. He doesn’t know this Aslan, but his heart and mind are inclined to love and worship him. And Aslan welcomes him into his company and into eternal life because even though he didn’t know Aslan’s name, he trusted God best as he knew God to be, and that had put his soul into a condition to trust and love God beyond the grave as well. To be drawn to light and love.

In this story, C.S. Lewis was alluding to an old and deep Christian tradition that the life and death and life again of Jesus was for all humanity, those that new Jesus by name and those that didn’t. In this understanding, Jesus’ New Covenant was for the whole earth’s participation, not just the people who had the luck to be born into places where they’d hear the name of Jesus.

I’ve remembered this as I looked at the masses of Delhi year after year, and it’s made my initial doubts in Jesus a constructive force, deepening and widening my faith, putting me in touch with beautiful and ancient hopes about the universal reach of Jesus, and giving me more faith and hope and love in the world. These experienced don’t give me doubt any more, because here doubt has been my teacher, nudging me toward God and toward a deeper and broader faith.

As I’ve asked others about their experiences of doubt, I’ve heard many stories like this, how doubting something we thought was true about God or life led to an openness to discover something else that’s truer. For me, my doubt was part of a process that taught me more helpful, more beautiful, more faithful hopes around heaven, hell, people, God, and eternity.

Doubt, with light and memory, can be a safe companion, even a teacher. It’s OK.

This was going to be my whole sermon, an upbeat talk on doubt with stories like this, how if we welcome doubt as a companion, not an enemy, it can even help us. I was even ready to call doubt our friend.  

But then I paused, because a few of you have told me that seasons of doubt have been hard and miserable and full of pain. And I remembered there was something else to say.

For me, doubt hasn’t been rare, but it hasn’t been the most troubling thing. The God I’ve come to know in Jesus has always seemed sweet and good, unexpected for sure, but never harsh or random or mean. So it’s always seemed OK to me to admit that in the end, I’m not all that certain about much. And I can wonder about all kinds of things, and change my mind when I need to. That’s been part of why I haven’t had to fake it as your pastor, that and the fact that in this church we don’t expect our pastors or anyone else to be perfect, or people we always have to agree with.

But again, as I asked some different friends about their experiences with doubt, I heard that for many, doubt can be a painful, mind and heart-wrenching experience. For some, that is because people have been taught a lot about hell, or have been taught that God is fearsome, if not outright random and mean.

But part of it too is there are people, including people in this room right now who have had doubts born of heart-wrenching, gut-busting pain that calls all their hopes and faith into question and makes them wonder – God, are you real? And God if you are, how can you possibly be good?  

I have some talks about God’s love and God’s power, and how I bet those work that I’ll have to give some day, but very much don’t have time for today. But for now, I want to honor these experiences of pain coupled with disappointment. The kind of doubt pain can bring can leave us unfulfilled, empty, and longing for more.

And that’s an awful feeling, but even that – the unfulfilled, empty, longing pangs of doubt may – hard as this is to say – they may be part of a good thing.

Let me be clear about this. I’m not saying our sadnesses or our losses are good. The deep pains we or our loved ones experience are just that – they are pains that hurt. But the ache that grows in us afterwards, the longing, that may be a redemptive gift. Sometimes pain and disappointment put us in touch with the vulnerability of our human experience and put us in touch with the ache for love and the ache for God that is what it means to be alive and to touch God in this life.

Pete Rollins – he’s our second Pete today – helps us think about this. He’s a philosopher and theologian and talks about all the many ways we try to eliminate our vulnerabilities and longings and needs. Because to be incomplete – to not have all the love and satisfaction we need – is to ache and to be empty.

Which from one angle is kind of lousy – who wouldn’t want to be happy and satisfied, certain and fulfilled, all the days of our lives? And yet, those things are impossible for humans. We’re vulnerable. We die. And so to to foster addictions or scapegoats or distractions or even religious systems that try to make us undoubting, always fulfilled, unlonging, certain people is to lie to ourselves and to live without God, who we can only know and find and love in our vulnerability.

When I’m afraid of death, and fear that afterwards there is nothing, it does me no good to repress or hide that fear because it’s still there beneath the surface, doing its thing. For me to be alive is going to include some fear and doubt around death. That’s the deal. And that fear and doubt need light. It also does me no good to use my memory of scripture, or my memories of certain, hopeful times to try to kill my doubts or fear, as if any of us could ever be all strong and all certain and all set in the face of suffering and crisis.

Instead, I can bring my doubt to God and let it become longing. I hear that in the final verse of the psalm, that reads “You led your people like sheep.” You were good to me, God, and I want that again. I want you close. I want you good. I want you guiding us.

In my doubt made longing, I can say to God, as I have: sometimes I’m terrified of death. Or my kid went through such and such, and God, you don’t seem good to them right now. I want you in this, God. And God doesn’t do something to take away all the ache, not usually, but the longing does give me somewhere to bring the ache, and usually there’s a sense that God is there listening, seeing the ache, hearing the ache, and loving me.  

Which is where we’ll end, with love. Because our doubts – with light and memory and longing – don’t take us to the end of doubt but to being loved in our doubt. And love is after all the nature and being and essence of God, and the center of all that is good and true.

There was a famous doubter among Jesus’ disciples, doubting Thomas we call him, the one who didn’t believe Jesus rose from the dead until he touched Jesus’ scarred wounds. But Peter – our third Pete – he doubted too. He doubted he’d be OK if he remained a loyal friend to Jesus, so he denied knowing him. He doubted his female associates’ reports that Jesus had risen, and he hid with the brothers in tiny room behind a locked door. And then even after he saw the risen Jesus, he was so ashamed of himself that he doubted God could ever work something good again in his life – until Jesus came to him on a beach and this happened three times:

John 21:15 (CEB)

15 When they finished eating, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”

Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”

Not: are you certain, Peter? Are you confident? Will you never doubt? We think certain confidence is what will make us strong, but it won’t. It will fail us, and only mask our fears and weaknesses and insecurities. There’s nothing wrong with confidence when it’s ours to have, but the highest command and call of Jesus isn’t to be confident or certain, it is to love. And lonely, overconfident, undoubting certainty doesn’t feed love, it chokes it out.

So Jesus asks Peter: do you love me? And when Peter says yes, Jesus tells him to express that love in how he loves people Jesus loves. Feed my lambs. Take care of the people I love.

And Peter did just that. When he got to write his own book (if write I Peter he did), he begins and ends with Jesus and love. He begins:

I Peter 1:8,5:14 (CEB)

8 Although you’ve never seen him, you love him. Even though you don’t see him now, you trust him and so rejoice with a glorious joy that is too much for words.

And he ends:

14 Greet each other with the kiss of love. Peace to you all who are in Christ.

My friends, even though you’ve never seen Jesus, you’ve never seen God, you can trust God to be good. Even though you doubt and fear and wonder, somewhere in your mind and heart and memory, you love all that you hope Jesus is and will be. That love is enough. Keep it alive. Share the love.

And know God’s peace, even in your doubts.

I close with two invitations here:

An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing

In times of enormous change, expect great stress and uncertainty. Lean into light, memory, longing, and love as you are able.

Spiritual Practice of the Week

Speak or write your mini-psalm: your personal expression of doubt or anger. Then sit in silence and see if you sense anything from God.